This is the personal account of a two-year journey during which I experienced the falling away of everything I can call a self. It was a journey through an unknown passageway that led to a life so new and different that, despite forty years of varied contemplative experiences, I never suspected its existence. Because it was beyond my expectations, the experience of no-self remained incomprehensible in terms of any frame of reference known to me, and though I searched the libraries and bookstores I did not find there an explanation or an account of a similar journey which, at the time, would have been clarifying and most helpful. Owing then to the deficiency of recorded accounts, I have written these pages trusting that they may be of use to those who share the destiny of making this journey beyond the self.
Though my contemplative experiences began at an early age, it was not until I was fifteen that I discovered how these experiences fit like the inset of a child’s puzzle into the larger framework of the Christian contemplative tradition. This finding was followed by ten years of relative seclusion in order to pursue the Christian goal of union with God, and once I had the certitude of this goal’s realization, I entered the more ordinary stream of life where I remain to this day.
Within the traditional framework, the Christian notion of loss-of-self is generally regarded as a transformation of the ego or lower self into the true or higher self as it approaches union with God. In this union, however, self retains its individual uniqueness and never loses its ontological sense of personal selfhood. Thus being lost to myself meant, at the same time, being found in God as the sharer of a divine life. From here on, the deepest sense of being and life is equally the sense of God’s being and life. Thus there is no longer any sense of “my” life, but rather “our” life–God and self. In this abiding state God, the “still-point” at the center of being, is ever accessible to the contemplative gaze – a point from which the life of the self arises and into which it sometimes disappears. But this latter experience of loss-of-self is only transient, it does not constitute a permanent state, nor did it occur to me that it could ever do so in this life.
Prior to this present journey, I had given little thought to the self, its perimeters or definitions. I took for granted the self was the totality of being, body and soul, mind and feelings; a being centered in God, its power-axis and still-point. Thus, because self at its deepest center is a run-on with the divine, I never found any true self apart from God, for to find the One is to find the other.
Because this was the limit of my expectations, I was all the more surprised and bewildered when many years later I came upon a permanent state in which there was no self, no higher self, true self, or anything that could be called a self. Clearly, I had fallen outside my own., as well as the traditional frame of reference, when I came upon a path that seemed to begin where the writers on the contemplative life had left off. But with the clear certitude of the self disappearance, there automatically arose the question of what had fallen away; what was the self? What, exactly, had it been? Then too, there was the all-important question: what remained in its absence? This journey was the gradual revelation of the answers to these questions, answers that had to be derived solely from personal experience since no outside explanation was forthcoming.
With the exception of the little I could find by Meister Eckhart, I was left without a way to account for this experience, and even when I turned to books in the Eastern traditions, I encountered the same deficit of accounts – at least accounts that were available to me through the local channels. Though the Buddhist notion of no-self struck me as true, its failure to acknowledge, or first come upon the wholeness of the self in its union with God, naturally left the Christian experience of no-self unaccounted for. Quite possibly, the extent to which the individual first discovers this union is the extent to which its falling away will appear all the more inexplicable and bewildering. It is only when this transition is over, or when we have become acclimated to a new life, that the relative difference between self and no-self recedes beyond reach; but by this time, we have already seen what is down the road and the need for clarification no longer exists.
Realizing then, that I was alone in this gap between the ultimate Christian notion of loss-of-self and its immediate experience, I came to a few conclusions of my own. In main, I am convinced that the contemplative life is composed of two distinct and separate movements well marked and defined by the nature of their experiences alone. The first movement is toward self’s union with God which seems to run parallel with the psychological process of integration, wherein the emphasis is on interior trials and dark nights by which the self is established in a permanent union with God, the still-point and axis of its being. In this process we discover that self is not lost; rather, a new self is revealed that functions from the deepest, innermost divine center.
Following this first movement is an interval (twenty years in my case) during which this union is tested by a variety of exterior (not interior) trials whereby this oneness is revealed in all its enduring depths of stability and toughness against all forces that would move, fragment, or disturb its center. Thus it is a period of discovering the beauty and intense wonder of this gratuitous union and, above all, of discovering what this wholeness means and how it works in our daily lives in the marketplace. Initially it is a period of becoming acclimated to the relative difference between life with the old, easily fragmented self, and life with a new self that cannot be moved from its center in God. Finally, this is a stage in which, if exterior trials are not forthcoming, the contemplative may seek them because the energy created by this union must move outward (as a unit and not as a scattered force) to find expression, to accept challenge – even suffering – as a way to both reveal and affirm this enduring love.
I might add that these intervening years between movements are also largely ignored in contemplative literature; their importance is highly underestimated due to the failure to realize that this interval (the “marketplace stage”) is actually the preparation for a great explosion – a quiet one, however – that ushers in another major turning-point. It seems that at the end of the marketplace a point is reached where the self is so completely aligned with the still-point that it can no longer be moved, even in its first movements, from this center. It can no longer be tested by any force or trial, nor moved by the winds of change, and at this point the self has obviously outworn its function; it is no longer needed or useful, and life can go on without it. We are ready to move on, go beyond the self, beyond even its most intimate union with God, and this is where we enter yet another new life – a life best categorized, perhaps as a life without a self.
The onset of this second movement is characterized by the falling away of self and coming upon “that” which remains when it is gone. But this going-out is an upheaval, a complete turnabout of such proportions it cannot possibly be missed, under-emphasized, or sufficiently stressed as a major landmark in the contemplative life. It is far more than the discovery of life without a self. The immediate, inevitable result is an emergence into a new dimension of knowing and being that entails a difficult and prolonged re-adjustment. The reflexive mechanism of the mind – or whatever it is that allows us to be self-conscious – is cut off or permanently suspended so the mind is ever after the held in a fixed now-moment out of which it cannot move in its uninterrupted gaze upon the Unknown.
This journey then, is nothing more, yet nothing less than a period of acclimating to a new way of seeing, a time of transition and revelation as it gradually comes upon “that” which remains when there is no self. This is not a journey for those who expect love and bliss, rather, it is for the hardy who have been tried in fire and have come to rest in a tough, immovable trust in “that” which lies beyond the known, beyond the self, beyond union, and even beyond love and trust itself.
Since the moment self-consciousness comes to a permanent end – and a new journey begins – is such a decisive stroke or milestone in the contemplative life, I can only speculate why so little has been said of this breakthrough; in fact, I may never get over the silence on the part of writers who say nothing about this second movement. Perhaps some contemplatives take in stride what to others is a monumental explosion; or possibly, writers down-play what they do not understand or deem unorthodox or rare; or perhaps – and this is my view – they have confused these two movements by failing to adequately distinguish between them: that is, to distinguish between a radical change of consciousness and the cessation of consciousness; between going beyond first, the lower (ego) self, and later, the higher True Self; between union with God, and God beyond union. Since viewed as a whole, the contemplative life is on a single continuum, it is often difficult to draw a line and see dear distinctions until one has personally encountered these landmarks, at which time the difference between these movements becomes obvious and unmistakable.
My purpose then, in writing this account, is to help clarify the second movement, to make it more recognizable and to bring to light, if possible, the ultimate, final realization of the Christian notion of loss-of-self. In part, this attempt stems from the conviction that this movement is not unusual and that many individuals have come, or will come, to this stage wherein some clarification will be as relevant to them as it would have been to me. Though no two will have the same experiences, I feel sure that for those who had found their true self in God and then lost it, there will be certain consequences and findings in common.
While the journey was in progress, I tried to write of its events, but it was not until it was over – or until the relative difference between life with or without a self was no longer apparent – that I wrote the account in its present form and gave it to several friends for their comments and criticisms. Though much too generous to cite me for either its content or its homely narrative, they were nevertheless honest with their questions and objections. In response to these I wrote Part II, trying to find the answers that were not apparent during the transition.
In some respects, while writing these final chapters I learned more about the journey than I learned while it was in progress. It seems that the nature of this passage is a total state of unknowing which, while it lent a certain beauty and air of mystery to its unfoldment, also lent a sense of bewilderment which was responsible, I believe, for certain hardships that might have been avoided if some explanation had been forthcoming. It was only when the journey was over and I could view it in retrospect that I came to a better understanding, and was able, therefore, to offer the explanations given in the final chapters.
Here too, I have made reference to my earlier background where it seemed necessary for understanding the present journey in its relationship to the past. This background was not given at the outset because my present concern focuses solely on the relatively unexplored dimension of life – this movement beyond the self. Also, I knew that if I did not record this transition as soon as possible, it would soon be forgotten, because one of the first lessons learned on this journey is that the passing of each experience leaves nothing in its wake, hardly a footprint and certainly not a vivid memory. In a word, one learns to live without a past.
For this reason, I wrote quickly before the journey became lost forever and life without a self grew as dim as the day of my birth. But at the same time, release from the past has made it possible to write on a personal level – something I would not have dared to undertake prior to this time – because the journey no longer belongs to “me”. I look upon it as I do any other fact of life or event taking place around us. Thus, it now stands unalterably by itself where it remains forever – but a thing of the past.
In conclusion, I must re-emphasize that the following experiences do not belong to the first contemplative movement or the soul’s establishment in a state of union with God. I have written elsewhere of this journey and feel that enough has been said of it already, since this movement is inevitably the exclusive concern of contemplative writers. Thus it is only where these writers leave off that I propose to begin. Here now, begins the journey beyond union, beyond self and God, a journey into the silent and still regions of the Unknown.
– Bernadette Roberts, from “The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey”